The Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens

by Anthony Perticaro

Jersey Devil

"It is a haunted place where the blood red waters of the Mullica River rise in the bog of a New Jersey town.... The cedars that line the river banks stain the waters their deep color. Stunted pitch pines stand motionless, their shallow roots anchored precariously in gleaming white stands. Silence reigns." So writes Helena Mann-Malnitchenko in her autobiographic memoir, "A Haunted Place," an eloquent sketch of the Pine Barrens.

The Pine Barrens are a dark, beautiful area of land which seem to belong in a fictitious fairy tale of Eastern European origin. They are, however, quite real and comprise two thousand square miles of Southeastern New Jersey. Originally inhabited solely by the Lenni Lenape Indians, white settlers would not set foot there until Henry Hudson, under the funding of the Dutch government, first explored the region in 1609. Initially, the area did not look very promising as it was extremely dry and so infertile, it could not support farming.

The region later became a hot bed of industry when bog iron was discovered. The iron mined out of the Pine Barrens would supply a large percentage of the ammunitions used during the American Revolution. Its prominence as an industrial mecca would be short lived. Higher grades of iron discovered in the west would shut down the Pine Barren's main source of industry.

The area's great oaks, cedars and, of course, pine trees became the natural resources relied upon, this time for the wood industry. These trees supported the wood cutting, glass making, and paper milling professions. This new economic foray did not prove profitable for very long. When the wood industry collapsed, the Pineys, the derogatory nickname for the Pine Barren's residents, were thrown into poverty.

Man's interference not withstanding, the area maintained its wildlife population quite well. Many animals call the Pine Barrens their home: foxes, deer, bear, various birds and, possibly, the Jersey Devil.

A recent episode of The X-Files borrowed the legendary creature for a story idea. The show had its facts mixed up. In the episode, the Jersey Devil is misrepresented by a primal, savage woman whose origin is owed more to the phenomena of Wild Children (children who are raised by animals in the wild and adopt traits found only in animals) than a creature of Northeastern American folklore. To confuse matters further, this Wild Child bears no resemblance to any of the facts found in documented cases of wild children. Then, she is linked directly to Bigfoot who has nothing to do with either of the two! Let's let the truth about the Jersey Devil be told.

The Jersey Devil of lore does not look like anything humanoid. It is a creature with the head of a horse, large wings and claws, and has a roughly four-foot-long serpentine body. When a person sees the Devil, he or she sees an omen of disaster to come. According to early legends, its appearances have come before shipwrecks and the outbreak of war.

Interestingly, the Jersey Devil is not the only legend which originates from the Pine Barrens. The area is home to two others. The first is the White Stag, a ghostly apparition which appears to help people at the moment of disaster. In Melnitchenko's article, she mentions the Stag was once supposed to have detoured an out-of-control stagecoach from crashing into a river.

The other legend is of James Still, "The Black Doctor." Still was a black man whose goal in life was to become a doctor. In the 19th century, the color of his skin made this an impossibility. Still retreated into the Barrens to study medicine from text books and learn herbal remedies from local Indians. Still then helped people in need who had ventured into the Barrens. Before his death, Still became a hero to those around him.

But of all the legends in the area, the Jersey Devil is the most famous and prominent. The origin of the creature dates back to the 18th century. The story goes as follows: when Mrs. Leeds, an indigent woman living in secluded poverty with her twelve starving children, found out she was to have another child exclaimed: "I don't want any more children! Let it be a devil." When the child was born, it was horribly deformed. It crawled from the womb and up the chimney and out into the woods. It is rumored to have fed on small children and livestock while haunting the area for years to come. Hence, the creatures other name is the Leeds Devil.

This is the most well known and "accepted" origin tale of the entity. Other variations of its birth state the child was deformed when Mrs. Leeds angered a clergyman. In other stories, she angered a gypsy. Other versions stated she practiced sorcery and the child was cursed by God. (Note: all these versions are akin to the werewolf lore of Eastern Europe.) One version states the child's father was a British soldier and God cursed the child since it was born out of an act of treason.

Whatever its birthright may be, the creature was alleged to have been exorcised from the area in 1740. The exorcism ritual performed could only banish it for one hundred years, allowing it to return in 1840.

Of course, these origin stories are pure myth and folklore. In all probability, these tales did not originate until the 1800s. Some accounts of the creature are fairly absurd, including it has been seen in the company of Mermaid and Captain Kidd's ghost! What was undeniable, however, was that the population of the area held a solid belief in the creature's existence and a deep-rooted fear of it.

Documented sightings would start to appear in the middle 1800s. Sketchy accounts--probably preserved by word of mouth for years before being put to print--of the Devil being sighted by townsfolk have been recorded in 1859, 1873, and 1880. One report states that Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, claimed to have seen the creature while hunting.

Records of sightings of the creature in established newspapers did not appear until the advent of the Twentieth Century. It is safe to speculate that any written records prior to the 1900s were either lost or destroyed over time. One of the earliest sightings recorded by local Philadelphia newspapers was in 1899 and it involved a businessman named George Saarosy who was awoken one night by loud, high-pitched screams in his yard. When he looked out his window, he saw the Jersey Devil fly past his house.

The most incredible flurry activity regarding the Devil did not happen until 1909 when literally thousands of encounters with the beast were reported. Articles printed in the now defunct Philadelphia Record chronicled the Devil's exploits. During the week of January 16th to the 23rd, the Jersey Devil reached a crescendo of popularity while managing to terrorize the entire population of the Delaware Valley. So immense was the attention paid to the creature, it received national news coverage.

On Saturday January 16, in the town of Woodbury, New Jersey, a man named Zack Cozzens reported seeing it on a roadside. This experience was chronicled in James Maloy and Ray Miller's book The Jersey Devil, which proved indispensable in writing this article. In it, Cozzens was quoted as saying: "I first heard a hissing sound. Then, something white flew across the street. I saw two spots of phosphorus--the eyes of the beast.... It was as fast as an auto." Later that same night, a group of people reported spying it in Bristol, Pennsylvania. The reports did not stop there.

A Mr. and Mrs. Nelson spotted the animal cavorting on their shed for ten straight minutes; police officers filed reports of shooting at it; and even a Trenton city councilman (name withheld in the source material) claimed an encounter. He had heard a hissing sound at his doorstep late one night. When he opened the door, he found cloven hoofprints in the snow. These bizarre footprints were turning up all over the New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Delaware region. Animal mutilations, occurring at random throughout the area during the week, were blamed on the Jersey Devil.

Although the sightings were front page news in Philadelphia and across the country, they were, of course, being met with total ridicule by the press. One editor went so far as to dismiss the whole thing as figments of the imagination of "complete idiots." The Philadelphia Zoo, as a joke, offered a $10,000 reward for its capture. Then, "the creature" was "captured" by Norman Jefferies and Jacob Hope.

Actually, Jefferies and Hope acquired a Kangaroo, painted stripes on it, and glued claws and wings onto it. They claimed the creature was not a demon spawn, but rather a breed of Australian vampire!

As quickly as it had come, the Jersey Devil disappeared from public view. In February of 1909, Leslie Garrison caught a fleeting glimpse of the creature flying over a clump of trees and out of sight for several years. The next recorded account--a very sketchy one--was not made until 1927 when a cabdriver (name unknown) alleged to have seen it after experiencing a flat tire. Then, the Devil would not be seen for another twenty-five years.

It was not until 1951, that there would be another outburst of Devil sightings. As reported in The Philadelphia Record, a ten-year-old boy sighted a creature "with blood dripping from its face" outside the boy's window. With that, the Jersey Devil was back in vogue once again.

Within days of this initial report, more encounters began to occur. In separate instances, Ronald James, Mrs. Elmer Clegy, and Mrs. William Weiser filed reports of hearing unearthly screams in the woods. When sighted, the creature was described quite differently by various people. It was reputed to have been over seven feet tall in one account while resembling an average sized caveman in another. Of course, many of the sightings described the creature as it appeared in its traditional visage. Reports swamped local police offices. The police were not very amused with the situation.

Upon being called in to investigate several strange tracks found in the snow, the police discovered a stuffed bear paw attached to a stick. Soon after, the police were hanging signs across highways which read "The Jersey Devil is a Hoax." Not to be swayed, many residents took to the wood with weapons in hand with intentions of killing the Devil. Fearing that several armed civilians running around with guns could develop into a dangerous situation, the police arrested several would-be Devil hunters on sight. Civil authorities quickly dismissed any accounts of the Devil as hysteria.

After the 1951 stir, reports would die down. Random animal mutilations and strange cries in the night would continue to be reported infrequently during the next decade. In 1966, Steven Silkotch blamed the death of his entire shed of poultry livestock on the Devil. What makes this story amazing is the fact the shed also contained two large German Shepherds, animals very capable of defending themselves against large attackers. Both Shepherds were torn to shreds. This account, however, would be the last encounter with the Devil acknowledged by police and the press. From then on, both would completely ignore any reports of the creature.

The memory of the Jersey Devil did not fade away. Local inhabitants keep the memory alive. One area of the Barrens is nicknamed Leeds Point and is reputed to be the actual birthplace of the Devil. Dozens of spots across New Jersey are rumored to be its final resting place, it cause of death varying by hundreds of different reasons.

"Oh, people still talk about it," says longtime Pine Barrens resident Joe Springer, "I met an ambulance driver who was riding around one night when he heard all these screams in the woods. This was back in 1974. He tore out of here like a madman and swears it was the Jersey Devil to this day."

Granted there are dozens of predatory animals in that area of the country such as coyote, foxes, bobcats and badgers. All of these animals are known to attack and kill livestock. The only thing more terrifying than hearing the cries these animals make is seeing one up close in the wild. There is a humorous anecdote regarding a case of Jersey Devil mistaken identity.

"My grandmother knew The Jersey Devil," says Philadelphia resident John Margovich. "She knew a guy named George Bishop who was from Bensalem, Pennsylvania. In the fifties, he went a little crazy and moved out to The Pine Barrens to be alone. You know, a Walden type thing. He was all scraggly and such from hanging out in the woods. I mean, really scruffy, with a long beard and such. He would freak people out when they saw him walking in the woods. George used to love hearing about people seeing him and swearing they saw The Jersey Devil."

This is not to dismiss all incidents of the Jersey Devil on the imagination. Something very strange has scared a lot of people in the Pine Barrens over the years. Something has managed to terrorize groups of people at random intervals throughout the years in the Pine Barrens. Tales of the Jersey Devil's exploits are still remembered today and most likely will never be forgotten. In fact, most people in the Pine Barrens area revere the tales. The Jersey Devil is their own legend and locals treat it fondly.

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